Impressions of the Dutch Capital

January 6th, 2018

Seagulls perched on the rooftops of rustic stone and brick buildings. Electric trams criss-cross the labyrinth-like Canal district of the city on streets well-traversed by both locals and tourists enjoying the clear afternoon air on foot, bicycle, and small boats and ferries that went along the picturesque canals. Upon exiting Amsterdam Centraal Station, I pause to take in the view that presents itself before me– a huge field of parked bikes arranged in an organized mess of rows all over the open square. It’s a small, sometimes overlooked part of Dutch culture to take the time to slowly stroll along the tree-lined streets to admire the beauty of Amsterdam’s unique architecture, coupled with the lingering romantic feeling that resonates throughout the city. Power lines for the tram system form an intricate web-like network over my head, attached to the buildings by sturdy metal hooks. Viewed side on, some of the dwellings were leaning forward– as if they are slated to topple at a moment’s notice. After all, Amsterdam was built on a foundation of peat and water-saturated soil. It’s name derives from Amstelredamme, paying homage to the city’s origins as a fishing village built around a dam on the river Amstel in 1275. Today it holds the title of the 5th busiest port in Europe, and second only to the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Altogether, the city alone contains over 100 kilometers of canal network.

I was amazed at how much internationalism was wedged in between the history, architecture and culture of the city– over 170 different nationalities have taken up residence here. The upper-class live in quaint loft spaces among these buildings where floor-to-ceiling windows provide an excellent view of the canals. It’s easy to lose sight of the many hidden spots that locals frequent among the (in)famous tourist traps of the Dutch capital. Most striking of all is De Wallen, the red-light district, located right in the middle of the Canal district and occupying almost half its length. Walking among this side of town, I breathe in the distinct smell of cannabis being smoked at the coffee shops (not to be confused with cafés) dotted around the district. These coffee shops have always existed in a grey area of Dutch law, but nevertheless play a vital role in the Netherlands’ tourism industry– about 30% of Amsterdam’s visitors flock here for the sole purpose of marijuana consumption.

For all its rather grandiose displays of vice, De Wallen does mask its side alleys pretty well– where some of the real charms of the city lie. Leafy vines and balcony planters add a tinge of natural beauty to the quiet residential dwellings tucked away in the side streets. I’m sure some would welcome the silence in the quiet nooks and crannies of the sprawling city.

During my time here, I Couchsurfed with my friend Dennis, who happened to be my first guest when I was hosting in Singapore, and it was the perfect opportunity to return the favor and gain a wealth of knowledge about Dutch culture. He went out of his way to cook me a sumptuous welcoming lunch of baked potatoes, meat and asparagus, and took me on a short walking tour around the city, before ending with a beer in the vibrant glow of the setting sun on a grassy spot in Rembrandtplein, its orange light kissing the tops of the gabled facades of the narrow houses. The people were going about the evenings, families in cafés and restaurants having dinner or an early beer on the outdoor seating areas, and groups of students can be heard conversing about the day’s happenings nearby. I had a great time enjoying the cool late-summer evening vibe and catching up with Dennis and people-watching. Originally from Copenhagen, he found greener pastures here a number of years ago after meeting a local Dutchman. Him being in a same-sex relationship, it was interesting to enlighten my knowledge about Dutch society and immerse myself in a completely different environment than the one I was brought up in. Same-sex couples were first incorporated into social security, tax and other structures, and an anti-discrimination law was passed in 1993. The Netherlands also became the first country to recognize same-sex marriage in 2001. And it shows– after only a few days I realized that there’s a clear distinction of a progressive, highly sustainable and tolerant reputation among the local culture. It would probably be the best candidate on my list of where I’d like to settle down in in a few years.

It’s always been about the local culture and authentic experiences I could have the opportunity to surround myself with and learn from, and this is indeed one of the countless examples of what interests me to take the road less traveled, avoiding flamboyant hotels and sightseeing on a more superficial level, opting to stay with locals and exploring hidden spots in cities from a local’s perspective. Most of my mornings are greeted by the late-summer sun, its yellow rays dancing among the trees stirring idly in the cool, gentle North Sea breeze. At other times there’s the occasional light grey canvas stretching overhead, and although it was the foretelling of a bleak day, waking up to the sight of raindrops trickling playfully down the window pane is particularly therapeutic, along with the sound of gentle acoustic music emanating from the speakers. Sometimes, all it takes is for us to remember that the simple things in life can also be the most beautiful. I accustomed myself to waking up to fresh bread, Dutch cheese, Speculoos, and the invigorating smell of coffee, appreciating the partial absence of the city noise as I get ready for the day ahead. My mind would sometimes drift off into a morning daydream as I lean on the counter watching the steam rise up from the boiling kettle against a backdrop of gabled rooftops outside the windows. I contemplate how beautiful it is to be in the present moment, in a completely different environment. I lived. I thrived.

It still bewilders me how fast the silence of my abode can transition into bustling chaos as I leave home on Schippersstraat before 10 to go about the day working remotely from cafés around the area. I would usually take a 20-minute walk to work along the canals, putting on tunes that seem to fit the charming morning vibe of Amsterdam. Like many western European cities, Amsterdam is highly praised for its walkability and accessibility, and although a good amount of the population commute by bicycle, I chose to go about my day on foot, avoiding the sheer chaos of some of the major bike lanes and being able to take in the city’s atmosphere at my own pace. Of the cafés that I visited, Coffee Company would probably be the most frequented one. It first started out as a single store in 1996 in Haarlemerdijk, and has come a long way in establishing itself as one of the more popular coffee chains in the Netherlands. Plus, they’ve got a bunch of awesome playlists on Spotify. It was unique that most of the stores could be converted from the regular unassuming coffee joint into a space for music performances by local bands and DJs on certain evenings, as well as for fine art hopefuls to exhibit their work on the whitewashed walls.

I spend the working days catching up on emails and continuing on my design work, all the while having a great view of the streets of Amsterdam. I always pick the window seats, outdoors if possible, and whenever my creativity or motivation faltered all I needed to do was lean back and take in the view. Productivity matters!

When it approached golden hour I would end my day meeting up with friends and locals on Couchsurfing, stopping by the local Albert Heijn for some groceries, (stocking up on delicious stroopwafels while I was at it), or taking a longer detour along any one of the canals or parks in the city, again putting on some soothing tunes as I stroll in the light of the setting sun– it definitely does add a whole lot to the already stunning scenery. It almost feels like you’re in your own movie.

I managed to catch up with Luna, a friend that I met in Lombok, Indonesia. I hitched a ride on her bicycle to Vondelpark in the afternoon where we enjoyed some croquettens and juice. The park itself is one of the the biggest in Amsterdam, the people are out in full force enjoying the pleasant weather, some nestled in groups having a picnic, playing kickball, couples walking their dogs, you name it. Put simply, when it comes to good weather, no one knows how to appreciate it quite like Dutch people. Being a very wet country similar to Singapore, I can sometimes relate when dreary weather takes it course.

I finally satisfy my cravings of seeing Dutch windmills one afternoon. I step off the bus after a 45-minute ride north of Amsterdam to find myself breathing in the fresh air of Zaandam, where an open-air museum awaits my arrival. The Zaanse Schans Museum recreates a traditional Dutch village with wooden houses and windmills dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Sure, the number of tourists present at the site is enough to effectively ruin the homely, authentic vibe, but nevertheless it’s interesting to take a little step back in time to experience traditional Dutch culture. A herd of cows graze in the fields nearby, sitting down as though they are people-watching. A small flock of brown sheep play in meadows encompassed by damp wooden fences, their bells jangling along.

After wandering around for roughly over an hour in the museum I find myself in the middle of a road bridge across the river to observe the beautiful landscape of riverside houses and ominous windmills in the distance. From here, looking back provides an almost perfect view of the quintessential countryside– vast fields dotted by livestock and farmhouses. I make out a group of wind turbines animating the backdrop with their triple-bladed fans. I spend the last few days in Amsterdam doing photography, immortalizing my experiences here in pictures before I move up east and then north to Utrecht and Groningen respectively.